Falconry: an ignoble sport

The United Arab Emirates is seeking to have falconry recognised by Unesco as part of the world’s “intangible heritage”. The application will be submitted to Unesco this month for consideration under the auspices of the international Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It should be strongly opposed.

The idea behind “intangible heritage” is that it is not limited to ancient monuments and the like but, as the Unesco websiteexplains, “encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally”.

Examples of intangible heritage currently recognised by Unesco include:

Falconry is certainly an ancient tradition in the Middle East – but then, so is “honour” killing and female circumcision. The fact that it’s a tradition does not, in itself, make it acceptable or worth preserving. Although falconry continues to be trumpeted by Gulf princes as a “noble sport”, this article by Charles Ferndale puts it in a different perspective:

Arabian falconry has over the last 36 years (at least) been catastrophically damaging both to wild falcons and to the quarry favoured by Gulf Arab falconers (the houbara bustard and, to a lesser extent, curlew). 
As early as 1974, the high prices paid by newly-rich Gulf Arabs and their Asian and European sycophants (including huge British companies), led to many hundreds of people, in many countries, seeking to lift the eggs and chicks of wild falcons and to trap mature birds. 

… whatever wisdom and virtue the desert Arab falconry traditions ever had have long since been forgotten … 

True desert bedouin in the Egyptian desert, who for centuries used falcons to feed their families, no longer see any. In the 1970s they saw eight-foot-high piles of dead birds rotting in the sun – the results of various Gulf Arab hunting parties competing to see who could kill the most bustards. The hunters used four-wheeled drives, scores of falcons, radio communications, shotguns and automatic weapons to kill the poor, slow, clumsy, helpless bustard. Even those who kill wild animals for pleasure could not have called it sport: it was slaughter.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 August 2009.